(M.Solis/SFVS) LA Mayor Eric Garcetti (left) and LAUSD interim Superintendent Megan K. Reilly chat with Olive Vista Middle School robotic students Azriel Subol and Brandon Ramirez on returning to campus.

Olive Vista Middle School in Sylmar had the enviable position — or unenviable position, depending on your view — of being the prime location for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) to promote the return of its students, teachers and classified staff this week to campus.

The district and much of Los Angeles County still cannot shake the disruptive grip the COVID-19 pandemic has had during the past two years. The virus’ latest variant, Omicron, has sent “positive” first case numbers soaring again — more than 45,000 were reported on Monday, Jan. 10, setting a record one-day total.

And the beginning of the semester on Tuesday, Jan. 11, was not a smooth one. The district’s “Daily Pass” portal — where students and staff enter proof of being vaccinated and/or a “negative” COVID-19 test — worked either slowly or not at all, causing widespread frustration and long waiting lines for students and their parents trying to enter their respective campuses. LAUSD required all students and staff to be tested before returning to in-person instruction.

M. Terry/SFVS
Robotic students Kristine Felix and Sophia Vasquez demonstrate to LAUSD Board President Kelly Gonez how they operate their racing car with their computer.

But district officials speaking at Olive Vista remained firm in their position that they are doing everything possible to keep their schools as safe as possible.

“I knew today was not going to be a day where we didn’t have some bumps in the road,” said interim District Superintendent Megan K. Reilly. “We are, at least to my knowledge, one of the only school districts that requires a ‘negative’ test to come on to campus. We’ve added another layer of safety protocol to make sure, and reassure parents, that it is safe for kids to come back to school.”

Reilly said the district “maintains the highest COVID-19 safety standards of any public school district in the nation,” including weekly testing of all staff and students, universal masking indoors and outdoors, comprehensive sanitizing efforts, frequent hand-washing, and upgraded air filtration systems.

The LAUSD website states it has distributed thousands of take-home COVID-19 test kits to students since Jan. 7. Students and employees have also been getting tested at district and other sites, with the program encountering thousands of infections. More than 414,000 tests had been administered as of Sunday, Jan. 9, and 62,000 positive cases had been detected, a positivity rate of about 15%.

“This is our third semester under this ‘new normal,’” Reilly said. “We know how to handle this. We’ve had many months of being innovative and responsive in our school communities.”

The district message of safe school sites was echoed by LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, who was also at Olive Vista on Tuesday.

“The ‘story’ is always about the ‘exceptions,’” Garcetti said. “With skeptics  you have to reassure them. I think it’s logical for parents to say, ‘Oh, there’s a lot of COVID out there, let’s keep the kid at home.’ You look at the stats, though, and it’s more dangerous in people’s households now than in the schools. And there is a higher ‘positivity’ rate in the general public than there is in LAUSD schools.

“So while [62,000 positive tests] sounds like a big number, it’s a lower number than the population at large when you look at the statistics.”

The mayor also suggested that the Omicron surge may be peaking.

“We went down slightly today (in new cases) from Monday, although it is still more than four times the peak we saw a year ago. The good news is, we’re at a quarter of the hospitalizations and at a tenth of the deaths daily. So while it is more widespread, we’re also seeing less suffering — especially among those who are vaccinated,” Garcetti said.

“And to be vaccinated these days also means [having the booster shot]. Now that it is authorized for 5- to 12-year-olds, go get your kid boosted as well. If you’re eligible, now is the time to do it.”

One of the unforeseen challenges from this current surge has been the reduction of available substitute teachers. LAUSD typically has approximately 2,800 available persons to teach in place of a regular instructor. But that “sub” pool has been so depleted at times in the fall that large numbers of students, instead of being in a classroom, had to be placed in auditoriums or large “study halls.”

Board President Kelly Gonez said the district has a contingency plan in place.

“Recognizing that we do expect increased absences due to COVID and other issues for the next month of so, we have a deployment plan where 4,000 of our certificated staff (who are qualified to teach) — people who have moved on to [other district positions and locations] — are preparing to come out and support school sites, and cover staffing absences,” Gonez said.

“We have a similar plan on the classified front — bus drivers or office staff who might be missing — that can help support those needs at our schools.”

At this time the district has the support of the teacher’s union in going forth with in-person instruction.

“LAUSD schools are on track to reopen with updated COVID safety protocols in place, including the prudent step of requiring baseline testing for all students and staff,” Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of the United Teachers Los Angeles, said in a statement 

“LAUSD is in a better position than most others in the country because of the safety infrastructure that educators and families fought for and won during this pandemic. LA Unified is one of only a handful of school districts in the United States with a regular COVID testing system and a coordinated daily pass system in place,” she stated. 

“The terrain is changing by the day, and educators will continue to prioritize the health and safety of everyone in our education community. This week will be stressful, and there will be disruptions. No one has a playbook for this moment. As we have throughout this crisis, we will get through this together — educators, parents, and school staff working alongside each other in support of our students.”